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The Political Silence of the Seminole, Essay Example

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Words: 1505

Essay

John Berger presents a challenge of aesthetics to the person who beholds the painting. There is a certain silence in some works of art. But this silence also has a tremendous power of communication. The viewer of the painting is drawn into the silence of the picture and is taken into a world of the subject of the painting. Here the viewer and the object viewed meet each other, and there is a point of dialogue. John Berger writes about this experience in the following words: “This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it…What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.” (116) In the first part of the passage Berger therefore describes about how the painting pulls us into its orbit. In the second part of the passage, however, Berger mentions another important part of this process, a precondition of this process. We have to be open to receiving this painting and trying to understand it. If we are closed to it, we will not experience the communication and the dialogue across time and history which is the shared world of the painting and the one who looks at the painting.

I attempted to follow this process when I examined the portrait of a Seminole warrior by ___________, located in the Lowe Museum. The portrait was appropriate to the process Berger describes for two major reasons. First, it is a picture with silence. We see the silent gaze of the Indian Seminole warrior looking at us. It was though in his silence he is attempting to communicate to the viewer. Secondly, the picture also transmits a message about time. It is clearly a historical work of art, one that brings up its own unique context. Here, we are looking into an ancient world of the Native American, and we are understanding that this is a world which no longer exists. The silence of the painting is the silence of a man, a chief, a noble aristocrat in Indian culture. It is also the silence of a world that has died and no longer exists.

When I drop my own preconceptions, as Berger, instructs and try to meet the painting on its own level, this creates an openness to the painting. I therefore attempted to throw out all my own prejudices about this historical period and tried to see the face of the Seminole as a face of history. This means I attempted to see the Seminole and the work of art itself as an instance of living history, telling the viewer the message of time. Silence is the face of this Seminole. He gazes with almost a cold emotion at the viewer. But this creates a deep message, one that is beyond words.

The painting forces one to ask questions. I understand by looking at the Seminole the appearance of the question: what happened to the world of this individual? Obviously, we know from history about the genocide of the Native Americans that led to the settlement of the country by the U.S. settlers. This is not a popular narrative in our history books, but we all know it to be the truth, if we say it aloud or not. What happened to this people, why is this Seminole the artifact of a past?

The Seminole does not communicate this silent genocide through words. This is not what the media of painting itself is for. But we can detect something very profound in this work itself. Here, we have a Seminole warrior and chief shown through the art-form of Western portrait painting. Here we have an instance of one culture being captured by another culture. The painting is taken from Western eyes, and it uses a Western form of art. The Native American, in his very existence, has been appropriated by this culture. It was as though the Native American were caught in the very frame of the picture, trapped in the Western style. Western art portrays the Native American according to its own laws of aesthetic beauty: he therefore makes the Native American the property of Western art. In much the same manner, the Native American land was taken by the laws of Western politics, which devalued the human rights of this Seminole. There is no attempt to adapt to the Seminole’s life, but to understand his life only in terms of Western terms. There is therefore an element of tyranny to this painting.

This is also why we can say silence makes up such an important part of this piece of work. The Native American’s face is one of a brave yet almost defeated silence. He can only pose like a still-life picture of some fruit or vegetable. This is because his own life has been taken from him: he is now portrayed according to the Western rules of aesthetics and art and the Western rules of politics, which sees him as a lesser type of being. His silence therefore is a thousand times more powerful than any type of words. He is silent because he has been silenced. His voice has been torn out from his throat. While he still remains regal in his appearance, the silence in his face shows a broken man – his traditions have only become an outer shell, with which we can look at the traditional headdress and say: “this is a Native American.” But the essence of this culture has been destroyed, captured within the frame: the voice of the people have been silenced.

When I observed the painting, I tried to record these thoughts. They have taken more of a concrete form in this essay. My initial reactions, after I used Berger’s approach, broke down the time barrier between me and the subject of the painting. I opened myself to the particular time and context of the painting. I wanted to ask the painting what is its message, what is its intent? But I knew that these messages could not be answered by merely the subject of the painting, that of a Native American, but the entire form of the painting: its Western style capturing a non-Western object, a defeated people silenced and almost put on display. At the same time, by making the Seminole a subject of the piece of art, he is given some dignity: it is as though one can say, yes his existence is important enough to be made permanent in time with this painting. However, at the same time, we see the sadness of the painting, and the destruction of a particular world and way of life.

This process as described by Berger allows one to communicate with another world. But in this case, we are communicating with a world that has long ago been destroyed. It has not only been destroyed by another alien culture, but by the culture which we currently live in. We, however, must also ask the correct questions of the painting, which means we have to understand its own context, not our context. Certainly, a dialogue implies the viewer opening up to the viewed object. However, we also have to let a monologue develop, as the painting tells us its own unique story. Berger’s process is valuable precisely in this regard, because it forces us to encounter the painting on new and radical levels, which means that it forces us to encounter the painting from outside our own comfort space, and therefore perhaps we have to encounter some unpleasant truths about history and the lives and cultures that were lost to make up this same history.

From this point of view, there also appears a sense in which Berger’s concepts capture a moment in which all art is political. If we understand by politics the various social arrangements that make up communities that encounter each other, then when art attempts to portray one community, we have to understand the complex relations in this process. The Seminole, as mentioned above, is a non-Western figure captured in a Western artistic style: what does this tell us about the relationship between the Native American and the settler? What does this tell us about how the artist, the Western man, viewed the Native American? What does this tell us to how the Native American reacted to being portrayed in this manner? What is most important in a dialogue is not that we have a definite answer to these questions. A dialogue is an open system. What is important is that these questions begin to be asked. When combining Berger’s theory of art with the Seminole’s portrait at the Lowe museum it was exactly this dialogue which began, not giving any definite conclusions, but rather posing compelling questions and leaving us open to the tragedy of the past and to question its mystery through the silence of the subject of this painting.

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